A Few Words About The Old Bristol
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and as always, a warm welcome to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR-related. After looking over the Monday morning news, it seems that the main topic of conversation is “Where was everybody?” Of course, we’re referring to the obviously less than full stands at the Last Great Colosseum, Bristol Motor Speedway.
This scribe must say that after reading several “opinion” columns and the comments that followed, it’s plain to see that the old cliché about not being able to please everyone is right on the mark. It would seem that only perhaps one out of ten even enjoyed the race at Bristol, while in each case, the other 90% were just chock-full of “reasons” why the race was such a failure. (Their word, not mine)
First off, let me hasten to say that nothing I read was a legitimate “reason” for anything. It was all just a deeper pile of diverse opinions than that presented by the authors of the articles. One of the loudest “demands” was to “Bring back the old Bristol.” I’d wager that no more than one in a hundred of those watching ever even saw the “Old Bristol.” She bowed into the racing scene in 1961, the idea come to fruition of Carl Moore, Larry Carrier and R.G. Pope. She was asphalt, not concrete, and her turns were banked only 22º, not 36º. That wouldn’t come until 1969 when Moore and Carrier decided to give the track an uplift as it were, which increased speeds on the track considerably.
I guess those complaining the loudest must have been those lovers of speed, because the racing was tough on drivers, cars and asphalt, but was pretty much either follow the leader or wreck the leader. I recall Benny Parsons winning his only race in 1973 en route to a championship by 7 laps over the next best finisher. (L.D. Ottinger) If that is the style of racing you miss, I simply cannot agree, though I certainly do miss Benny.
By 1982, Bristol had changed ownership twice more with the last purchaser being Warner Hodgdon, who named former owner Larry Carrier as General Manager. Some three years later, Hodgdon filed for bankruptcy and Carrier took possession of his little girl once more, paying off liens and outstanding debts.
About a decade later, the tires had gotten better, with more traction and the cars much faster. The high banks of Bristol couldn’t carry that combination and the track surface began to deteriorate faster than Carrier’s wallet could keep up with it. Between the spring and summer races of 1992 Bristol became the first speedway to host a NASCAR Cup event that boasted a track surface of all concrete. Oh, and by the way, the “fans” hated it!
Early in 1996, Carrier sold the Speedway to O. Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. Smith paid $26 million for the Speedway that at that time seated just over 70,000 fans. Please note… that was only 20 years ago, so “old” is not a term that applies there. The “old” Bristol was long gone well before that time.
One of Smith’s first moves was to hire Jeff Byrd (R.J. Reynolds) as General Manager of Bristol, and he would not regret that choice. Under Byrd’s guidance, BMS continued to grow and by April of 1997 was the largest sports arena in Tennessee and one of the largest in the country, seating 118,000. The speedway also boasted 22 new skyboxes. By the end of the following year, that total had grown to 131,000 seats and 100 skyboxes. In just those 2 years, Smith’s investment in Bristol after purchase was in excess of $50 million.
In 2002, work began on an ambitious project that would see the entire backstretch, including the remaining concrete seating, demolished in favor of a new backstretch grandstand that would increase the track’s seating capacity to an estimated 155,000. The backstretch now includes three levels of seating and features 52 luxury skybox suites. By 2005, with the completion of the final 35 luxury suites, Smith’s efforts to accommodate fan comfort were finished, at a cost well beyond my ability to estimate.
In 2007, NASCAR introduced the “COT” or Car of Tomorrow… another discussion for another day… and little Bristol was once again showing her age and near the point of disintegration. The old concrete surface was removed… and yes, for the folks dragging out that tired old, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, it was “broke” and in desperate need of fixing. Being a forward thinker, Smith decided that the new surface would consist of the newer graduated banking rather than just the straight-up 36º that limited racing to the bottom groove only and made for many wrecked cars and frayed tempers because cars could not pass each other without a “bump and run” maneuver.
The racing under that configuration was nothing short of awesome. Cars easily racing three-wide around tiny and steep little Bristol was a sight to behold. It was very reminiscent of the racing at Irwindale in California, a track on which this old fan has always loved to watch a race. Irwindale had installed the graduated banking, and I suspect that might be where Bruton Smith got the idea for Bristol. At this point, if one had to guess, mine would be that all in all, Smith spent somewhere in excess of $100 million on Bristol, not including the original purchase. Please, just let that number sink in and think about it for a minute…
Did the fickle fans thank him for the grand palace of speed he’d built for them? Of course not. The hue and cry began almost immediately. They wanted the “old” Bristol back. At this point, I must point out that those that stood in that camp are not race fans; they are wreck fans, and there are no two ways about it. Bristol had racing, and it was excellent racing!
In 2012, Bruton Smith did what no other track owner would ever do. He spent almost 2 weeks listening to fans and weighing their input and then announced his decision. The banking in the upper groove of the race track would be reduced to the same degree as the middle of the surface. The project was designed to eliminate the third groove as a viable option and create tighter racing.
Who else would have done that for the fickle fans? Now, what do we hear, again and again? The “fans” want the “old” Bristol back. No, they do not! They want back the wrecks. They want back the twisted sheet metal and injured drivers. They want leaders out on laps by themselves and somehow they call that “racing.” If you want routing and gouging, take a ride over to Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem N.C. That’s a tiny ¼-mile track surrounding a football field. I hear that the show there is something to behold. Go for it, but don’t come around offering your “reasons” for the low attendance at Bristol.
Here’s a bit of a wake-up call for you. Attendance at all tracks is down. ALL tracks! Attendance is also down at NFL, NBA, and NHL games, and just about everywhere that attendance matters. Is that all the fault of changes made to Bristol Motor Speedway? Don’t be ridiculous! “The times, they are a’changing” is not just a trite saying. The times are always changing; the only constant in life is change. Deal with it. If you don’t want to go racing, then stay home. Oh wait, you did stay home. Of all the complaints I read, not one of them came from anyone that had actually been at the track last weekend.
Speaking of those actually at the track, their number is estimated circa 90,000 by the Bristol Herald Courier. If I had to guess, I’d say there were far more people at the track than on line complaining about the race. You see, folks that give a damn, such as the ones that will read this offering, aren’t generally the ones that complain. If those folks see something amiss, they try to fix it because they know that complaining will do no good. Sadly, that is exactly the way Mr. Smith should have treated you. He gave you the best and you wanted the best made still better. Well, he gave you what you asked for. You don’t for one second seriously think he’s going to invest $millions more trying to undo what you asked for because you changed your mind, do you?
It’s Tuesday morning; the overnight ratings for Bristol are in, and they are not good. In all truth, they are just about in the toilet. Your scribe cannot convey to you just how sad and disheartening that is to me. When I could go racing, I was there, and it was, for me, absolutely thrilling… the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the camaraderie with other fans, all worked together to make every race a memorable experience, no matter the weather or the temperature. If younger folks today can’t or don’t care to share that sort of experience, then my sympathies are with them. Perhaps, if phones were left in pockets… in airplane mode and concerts forgotten, the racing might once again take center stage. It is, after all, a race track, not a concert hall or a phone booth.
Anyone that understands racing would have enjoyed the race at Bristol immensely. If you did not, perhaps you’d better check your priorities; go plant a garden, wash the car, shampoo the dog or find some other productive pastime because you are not cut out to be a race fan and those of us that are fans are tired of hearing how bored you are.
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, which I had all planned until it developed that the singer I’d meant to feature here would be seen as copying someone else’s efforts of the night before. We don’t imitate here; we are 100% original, so what was here was erased and I set out upon a venture to find something as different as it could be. I do hope you’ll enjoy what I’ve found today.
This is the second half of a Kate Smith Hour aired on that new contraption called television, back in 1952, in which Kate hosts members of the Grand Ol’ Opry. I found both halves, but on the first half, Hank Williams has been muted. Such is life today on YouTube. Hank’s been gone over 60 years and royalties are still a concern? No fear; this half features “Cold, Cold Heart” and has an awesome duo sung by Hank and Anita Carter. “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love with You.” Please enjoy this fun trip way down Memory Lane…
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!